Why Colorless Speculation is So Scary

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about diversity in the publishing world. Lee and Low conducted their survey of the industry a few weeks ago, and to no one’s surprise, the results came back as whitewashed as ever (http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/). There have also been a number of recent examples in children’s literature where books making an attempt at diversity failed to properly approach their subject matter (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/17/scholastic-george-washington-book-slave-controversy). Beyond those main story lines, I’m also daily a witness to conversations on Twitter about this subject.

Things only get worse when the conversation turns to the genres in which I write (fantasy and science fiction). There’s been some push back on why the statistics for our genres have been so lacking in diversity, and one recent argument I’ve heard from fantasy and science fiction authors goes like this:

“Well, I’m not writing in an Earth setting. The continent I’ve made up does not have a Civil War. It does not have a Middle Passage. There is no slavery-based-on-race problem. So it would be weird for me to focus on race.”

And yet… we do focus on race. By always making our fictional worlds and futures white, we’re quietly focusing on race in a negative, harmful way. Let’s think about both:

  1. Fantasy – Although the two genres do have some overlap and fusion, fantasy is generally regarded as works that use magic or supernatural elements. Often, the focus is on a world that the author has entirely made up (though urban and historical fiction do tend to ground themselves in a world very similar to our own). So for decades, the focus of this genre has been on white people. Our main characters have been white. The societies they live in have been white. There are definitely a handful of exceptions to this (and situations in which the human race isn’t even featured in the story), but we can absolutely trace a legacy of whiteness.

    Why is this so frightening? Because in the wildest imaginations of a long line of writers, there are no people of color. We could have made up anything, and yet the general agreement in our genre tended to create characters that resemble Europeans/Americans rather than Latinos/Africans/Indians/Asians/Etc. Given the chance to play with boundless imagination, where trees can talk and girls can shrink down to the size of a peanut, we bound ourselves to one general rule: make the characters white.

    2. Science Fiction – Generally, people view science fiction as a genre of possibilities. There’s a long history, in fact, of science fiction writers predicting future advancement. Read Bradbury or Wells and you’ll find some startling prophecies about the technology we’d one day tap into. So the explorations in this genre often center on current, future, or way-way-way in the future technologies that are feasible possibilities given who we are and what we know (or could know).

    Which makes the whiteness in these even more frightening. This is the genre in which authors can explore our future. Is our future depressing? Full of boundless innovation? Can we teleport? Are there ships to other galaxies? According to the history of our genre, the future is… white.

    As much as I loved some of these movies, let’s take a look at some imagined futures that basically have no people of color:

    Mad Max, War of the Worlds, Tron, Judge Dredd, Starship Troopers, Avatar, Blade Runner, Divergent, etc. This list could stretch a few miles long.

    And if your first instinct is to say, “Wait, there was that one black girl in Divergent. The friend… who… yeah.” Diversity isn’t something we sprinkle on and pretend the job’s been done. Is the population of Native Americans in our world a topping? Should we consider our Latino population a side-dish? Diversity in culture should be an infusion, not something added in.

There is a disturbing connection between the futures (and fantasies) we envision and how we see the world. Far from believing that my genre excuses the need to “focus on race” or “demonstrate proper representation” or “be intentional about inclusivity,” I’d like to think that it demands it even more. After all, if we are willing to exclude people of color from our futures, from our imagined worlds, what does it say about what we’re willing to do in real life (or are already doing in real life)?


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